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(Beirut) – Bahrain’s court of appeal should overturn a lower court conviction for illegal assembly against the human rights activist Nabeel Rajab and cancel his three-year prison term, Human Rights Watch said today. Because the authorities have presented no evidence that he advocated or participated in violence, his conviction is a violation of his right to freedom of peaceful assembly, Human Rights Watch said. The court is scheduled to hear Rajab’s appeal on October 16, 2012.

A criminal court sentenced Rajab on August 16 to three years in prison for organizing and participating in three demonstrations between January and March 2012. Rajab is president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and a member of the advisory committee of the Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa Division.“The criminal court verdict cites no evidence – not even an allegation– that Nabeel Rajab participated in or advocated violent protests,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “He has the basic right to peaceful assembly and shouldn’t be sent to prison for that.”

The Public Prosecution Office charged Rajab under article 178 of the Penal Code, which prohibits unauthorized gatherings of five or more people in a public place with the “purpose of committing crimes” or “undermining public security, even if intended to achieve legitimate purpose.”

A public prosecution official told Bahraini media that that Rajab had incited violence. The government also posted videos of some protests on YouTube, claiming, “You will find…defendant Nabeel Rajab violating the law.” Those videos appear to confirm that the protests were peaceful and do not capture any incitement to violence by Rajab or otherwise support the allegation made by the public prosecutor.

No such evidence is cited in the court’s verdicts in the three cases. In the case numbered 07291204947, police testified that after they dispersed an “illegal demonstration” on January 12, some people threw stones and Molotov cocktails at “special forces” and blocked the road with metal containers. One officer testified that he saw Rajab leading a march of 10 to 15 people “chanting for the release of political detainees.” But the verdict cites no evidence suggesting that Rajab was involved in the violence that police alleged occurred or that he incited such acts.

In the case numbered 07201203460, according to the verdict, about 15 people including Rajab had organized in a march on an unspecified date in February and that the protesters, except Rajab and three others, dispersed when police ordered them to. Police then arrested Rajab and allegedly found messages on his mobile phone calling “for participation in unlicensed marches, including the march at which he was arrested.” The verdict contains no conclusion that any crime or public security disturbance had occurred and does not cite any evidence for reaching such a conclusion.

The verdict in the case numbered 07201205263 stated that Rajab had called for and participated in an unauthorized gathering of about 50 people on March 31. The court said the protesters did not respond to orders to disperse, but the verdict does not mention any public disturbance, violent activity, or incitement to violence by Rajab or anyone else.
Authorities have previously prosecuted Rajab on politically motivated charges. He was detained from May 5 to May 28 for Twitter remarks criticizing the Interior Ministry for failing to investigate attacks by what Rajab said were pro-government armed gangs against Shia residents. On June 28 a criminal court fined him 300 Bahraini Dinars (US$790) in that case. A court of appeal will review the verdict on November 27.

Authorities again detained Rajab on June 6 for another Twitter remark calling for the prime minister to step down. On July 9 a criminal court convicted and sentenced him to three months in prison. A court of appeal overturned that verdict on August 23, but Rajab remained in prison following the August 16 convictions.

Bahraini authorities have given permits for some opposition rallies over the past year, but a great number of applications for permits have been denied, Human Rights Watch said.

“It is hard to avoid concluding that Nabeel Rajab’s convictions and three-year sentence for illegal assembly represent politically motivated punishment for his insistence on exercising rights that are protected both by international treaties to which Bahrain is a party and Bahrain’s constitution,” Stork said. “The appeals court should vacate the convictions and free him immediately.”

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